Adapted Spiral Praxis and Movement for the Bodymind Process

by Affect Autism

This Week’s Guest

Today I am thrilled to interview Yuji Oka of the Spiral Movement Center in Toronto where my son went for their MOVEMENT program weekly for many years up until the Pandemic. Yuji is the founder and a practitioner of Adapted Spiral Praxis which is based on the bodymind somatic process. It’s a child-centered modality that deals with the internal experiences of children: their physical, emotional, and cognitive experience–not unlike DIR/Floortime, yet different. Yuji is here to talk about his work with the disability and special needs populations he serves.

What is this all about?

Yuji works in the field of somatics. Somatics is concerned with working through the body, where the body is the vessel for pretty much all experiences of life, he explains. If you think about the sensory motor stage in the first 6 months of life, somatics says that this world exists through your entire lifetime. And for the disability community that Yuji works with, it’s still the primary means in which the child really feels the most grounded.

Yuji has a background in Physics and Dance. Dance, in particular, was instrumental in introducing this philosophy of working through the body and making use of the body in a greater context as an artist, Yuji explains. He loves to see how learning about the body, learning how to express yourself, becoming more confident of yourself, and becoming more independent applies to children. They’ve developed their own system working with children based on this dance/somatic process at the Spiral Movement Center.


The ‘Therapy’

I’ve seen many of Yuji’s center’s videos that show amazing transformations that people have gone through–both children and adults. I, myself, had a shoulder rotator cuff injury from an exercise class about 8 years ago or so that I was treated for at a few sports clinics and through physiotherapy, but nothing was really healing it. I went to Yuji, and to give you an example of the type of work he does, he instructed me to put my arm straight out and pretend I was drawing a circle, but to picture it coming from a shoulder blade–like a big long pencil that you’re controlling from your shoulder blade (instead of from your hand). This really stuck with me because where I pictured the motion was coming from in my head made a huge difference.

Yuji says that when people do therapy or think about a child’s challenges, we tend to think about a function, such as wanting them to hold a cup or brush their teeth. We focus on the toothbrush and holding it, but you have to learn about your body first before you do that activity, Yuji explains. In somatics and in bodymind activities, in general, the focus is on how you actually do the thing, rather than doing the activity itself.

The activity is very important, of course, because we all want those functional milestones for our children, but when children are learning about those movements, they’re not necessarily interested in the activity. They want it to feel good inside themselves, and feel like it makes sense in their own bodies.

Yuji Oka, Bodymind Practitioner


How it Works

In dance, when you see the beautiful movement of dancers, you just want to copy them, but that’s not really how it works, Yuji explains. You have to really look inside yourself and be engaged with muscles you haven’t used much before, and the process of learning is actually contained in the body and not in the forms that everyone sees. So, he continues, whether it’s walking, crawling, or rolling, he finds that sometimes kids just don’t know what to do. They see you doing it, so they know there’s a skill, but they get frustrated that their body doesn’t move that way.

The whole process is to guide them and let them know ‘flow learning’–it has to hook in to their own learning of their body, which will differ for each individual. It’s an internal thing rather than an external thing.

Yuji Oka, Bodymind Practitioner


Helping People get to Know Their Bodies

I described a few videos I’ve seen from Yuji’s center including children with complex cerebral palsy learning to move, a middle-aged man with a back injury that years of physiotherapy, and even surgery, didn’t help, and a young man from Scotland who was hit by a car when he was young and began having spasms so bad that he could no longer control many of his movement and came with his family to Yuji’s center for an intensive. In the latter two cases, the before and after shots of their posture demonstrated the change that was incredible.

This is a topic very close to Yuji’s heart, he says, because to get to see people get to know their own bodies is what he loves. We often sees our children through the symptoms that they show. Yuji often feels like those symptoms are not part of who they are. For example, with autistic kids, people say they have tactile defensiveness. Yuji says some might be extremely sensitive to how you touch them and how they perceive your touch, but in fact, they want your touch. They crave it, and it’s what they need, but it has to be done in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them, and that makes them feel comfortable.

Yuji provides another example with Cerebral Palsy. Sometimes, he says, they’ll have spasticity. Yuji screams from the rooftop that it can be treated. It’s only a symptom because the children are meeting obstacles in their learning process. For example, if they’re trying to roll sometimes their arm will get stuck in a position and they’ll try to just push through with so much force. The spasticity comes from that, which ends up just being a bad habit that can be helped with a little bit of guidance, he explains.

Yuji provides another example with Cerebral Palsy. Sometimes, he says, they’ll have spasticity. Yuji screams from the rooftop that it can be treated. It’s only a symptom because the children are meeting obstacles in their learning process. For example, if they’re trying to roll sometimes their arm will get stuck in a position and they’ll try to just push through with so much force. The spasticity comes from that, which ends up just being a bad habit that can be helped with a little bit of guidance, he explains.


A Series of Small Steps

Yuji says that a lot the work he does looks impressive, but it’s really about the repeated small steps of progress and paying attention to those gaps that are so frequently overlooked inside of the learning process. These individuals just need to know how to leverage their body so they can do the second part of the roll, or figure out what that whole process of physical interaction means. Yuji does that through the practitioner touch and through the touch of other peers through the flow of interaction that they have. If you do that, Yuji asserts, you can open that door for them. It’s a very participatory process where everyone is learning the process together.

Yuji sees his work, both with developmental challenges and post-accidents, as a balance. Working through blocks and difficulties (i.e., the things that are holding the child back) is like thinking of the roots of a tree that make the tree grow. The awareness that the child has of their body is like the roots. They need to do to know what’s going on in their body when they are having difficulties and the other side is to let them fly: to get them to that comfortable place where you open the natural doors of learning and curiosity that every child has. Once you hook into that, you can address the challenges, such as the pain or anxieties that they feel. When you have both of those poles taken care of, that’s when the child feels really comfortable and maybe you can fly together, Yuji says.


The Beautiful Moments

Yuji has such a good sense of editing in his powerful, heartwarming videos. He says that he is very lucky to have a special relationship with the families who come. He has his own space, and families who visit live in his space while they are there, so he is with them 24/7. He gets a glimpse into the whole picture, which is different than having the child in the studio for an hour. It’s a completely different planet that these families are living on, he explains, with things happening that others can’t imagine. The documentation process of such an immersion allows him to bring the camera in and it starts to disappear which allowed Yuji to capture moments that even as a practitioner you might not see, he explains.

There’s so much, Yuji continues, including the hopes of everyone involved and how everyone is trying so hard to make it work. When you see those breakthroughs, there’s such a torrent of emotions and possibilities that come about. He just loves it and feels very blessed that he can sometimes capture some of those beautiful moments.


The Sessions

I remembered how I heard about Yuji’s services. We heard about BodySongs and Stories through a mailing list. I remember looking into the services and saw that they did Adapted Yoga for children in small groups, but my son did MOVEMENT since he was about 4 years old and we wanted one-on-one. It was in a big studio that was like a gymnasium with gym mats and blocks and the practitioner would set up obstacle courses for my son that would include different sequences of movements, such as stepping then jumping on a wooden block, then stepping down, then jumping up to the next block. My son would roll crooked and do somersaults with assistance. He’d jump off a high bench onto a mat while I’d watch, worried he was going to fall and hurt himself. She was getting him to be more comfortable taking jumps and moving his body.

At the end, the practitioner would hand him beanbags and he’d throw the beanbags up into the loft and laugh so much. He absolutely loved it. The play process is a huge part of the situation, Yuji explains. It’s about exploring and feeling that they’re engaged and discovering things, rather than doing rote activities. They’re going through an exploratory process, but it’s also connected to a universal learning process that all kids go through. They represent it through the equilibrium positions that humans go through from laying to propping up, to crawling, to standing, to walking, jumping, leaping. This process is fixed in time from the beginning of humanity. Once you realize that this process is always there, they just try to shape that experience for the kids. They want the kids to fly.

Each one of those movements is an insight for the individual, Yuji says. Part of it is also to maintain a constant sense of learning. When a child learns to walk, they fall, they try things, they fall, and there’s so much variation. If you can see their movements through time, it’s a big cloud of movements, Yuji explains. Yuji tries to replicate those movements as much as possible for the clients. If they’re standing, he’ll try to get them to stand in as many variations as possible with a lot of partnering situations and situations in which the child has to do something slightly different each time. They might put ankle weights on them, or have them partner up, or change the terrain so they’re walking on an incline, for example. Basically they always try to present the material fresh to them so they’re always going through that process.

To Yuji, paradise is an empty space with a few props to help the kids remember, keep them safe, and just let them be the movement clouds that they are. It brought back many memories for me of how my son would walk up the bench, crawl through the mat that was folded up like a tunnel, etc. I’m so grateful that he had those experiences. I think these movement experiences helped him so much, even though he still has motor planning challenges that persist. I wonder if he’d have had greater challenges if not for these fabulous sessions he did for many years.


How it Started

Yuji’s work first started at a school for children with “emotional disturbances and behavioural issues”. This is what it was called at the time. The children were referred to this school because regular school was not working for them, for whatever reason. They could not manage in the classroom and it would manifest as ‘behaviour’. Yuji says that with movement, you can look at behaviour with a different lens. Usually we’re trying to control behaviour, but with movement, it’s done in a series of actions that make sense to the children versus telling them to stay in their seat. 

He explained that they would tape off each child’s space with painter’s tape on the floor, which were concrete markers, and gave them the idea, through physicality. It creates a spatial loop. Within that loop, there’s a skill that needs to be done, with a clear beginning and end. And there’s something like throwing the bean bag that motivates the child and makes doing the activities fun, Yuji explains. They’re instilling the idea of behaviour, but in a more flexible way. Yuji feels very strongly about how–especially with autism–the control or guiding the behaviour can actually make the structures more rigid.

They are not fundamentally disoriented or dysregulated. They get that way because they’re overwhelmed.

Yuji Oka, Bodymind Practitioner

When you start to say, “Hey, you’re capable of doing lots of flexible behaviours“–choosing to move here or there, it’s so important because it really deals with the flying part of the tree. You’re saying that the behavioural issues aren’t because you’re a bad person or can’t control yourself. It’s because you need to know what engages you. When you do, you’re perfectly engaged, and your behaviour is not out of the norm and it’s all there. Yuji loves movement because it’s such a direct way of learning. It’s all preacademic and builds that foundation. When they have those skills, they can cope going forward in a traditional academic setting. It’s their big goal to get them comfortable in their body and integrate in more social activities that they’re perfectly capable of doing, but have difficulty approaching, Yuji explains.


The Natural Learning Process

I pointed out that a lot of the concepts Yuji mentioned are Floortime concepts. I also had another flashback that reminded me of the beanbag chair that my son would crash into to wait while the practitioner set up the next obstacle course, which completed the loop and gave him proprioceptive input. Yuji says that when they first came into the school system, everyone said they would rile up the kids. Occupational Therapists talk about a sensory diet, but Yuji says they also need a movement diet where they can use their bodies. A lot of children tend to get one-on-one work, and Yuji does that, too, but when they worked with classrooms, they realized that there has to be structures that are concrete for the children to understand, not just keeping your hands to yourself. It doesn’t physically make sense to some children. 

Instead, Yuji tries to get them to understand how to use space in terms of the patterns you’re creating in space, understanding that there’s physical markers to show where they can stay that makes sense to them, understanding touch and what their hands are meant to do by touching other kids, by sharing weight and interactions. These are the effective ways that children start to ‘learn by doing’ instead of using words. They try to avoid behaviour as reward and punishment, but instead it’s part of the learning process.

There is Need Around the World

The videos Yuji’s center is putting out resonate with a lot of families around the world and has caught attention. Therapy around the world differs, Yuji explains, depending on the country, culture, and emphasis. There’s always a need for education, he says. Some countries are ok with physical touch, like in South America, for example, whereas if you go to the United Kingdom, therapists are contracted to not touch their children. In a lot of places in India and Africa, children are shunned and cannot go to public school, not only because the teachers don’t know what to do, but the other children will actually physically attack them. There’s a very strong stigma to being disabled.

There’s such a need for education. As parents, you have an intuition of what your child needs. You know they have capabilities beyond what you see. Many of the services available don’t address the issues in a direct enough way for parents. They feel the kids are plateauing and don’t have enough individualized attention they require. Yuji says that his work and DIR/Floortime are all addressing this need that parents need to feel comfortable with their children, and also the kids themselves need an alternative to something that’s not so clinical. There are wonderful things that are being done clincially for children, but sometimes there’s trauma and kids are crying and Yuji says that’s absolutely not necessarily.

Now that the world has opened up again post pandemic, Yuji’s been able to travel. He can often do free group information sessions to provide resources to parents and others. You might find one gym or yoga teacher who’s willing to help. There are lots of people who want to help children and Yuji does his research to find them.

Training Practitioners

Yuji’s travels have inspired him to create a portal at the Spiral Movement website trying to provide parents with general knowledge about disabilities and special needs. For people who want more specialized training, they offer an online class. They had a pilot project during Covid to see if they were able to teach online and realized they can. They will offer their first online series this fall. It’s a year-long course where parents come with their children and they go through the processes of each child. They describe each child and they try to figure out what works for each children. For more professional situations, they go through curriculum. They will also do in-person training for practitioners for their professional training track where professionals have to do an on-site module.

Adapted Spiral Praxis Web Resources

The Work Continues

What drives Yuji, and what he thinks drives everyone in this field is helping children with disabilities. Special needs and disability work started around the 1960’s when they started having the types of therapies that are normal now, Yuji explains. When he travels the world now, he sees what it was like before that. There’s a lot of information that needs to be put out there. This is an ongoing process to figure out best, alternative, and holistic practices. A person like Yuji can now go to Medical conferences with his work. We are still progressing with about 50 or 60 years of disability work and we’re still figuring things out, he says.

That’s the interest for Yuji. There’s so many things we don’t know about disabled children. Their inner world is still unknown in so many cases. What about autism. Is it a disability? Is it a gift? Is it a form of consciousness? We are still learning, Yuji says. He hopes it continues so that kids get the care and support that they need. If only we can provide required services for every child. It’s our shared dream.

This week’s PRACTICE TIP:

This week let’s take some time to watch at least one of the films at the Adapted Spiral Praxis website and apply something from them to your family.

For example: If notice that your child struggles in a form of movement, figure out if the upcoming course on their portal might be for you this fall in order to help your child be more comfortable in their body.

Thank you to Yuji for describing his work and sharing his wisdom. Please visit his websites and watch his videos to see the remarkable fruits of his labour. I hope that you learned something valuable and will share it on Facebook or Twitter and feel free to share relevant experiences, questions, or comments in the Comments section below.

Until next time, here’s to choosing play and experiencing joy everyday!

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